Retroactive favorites: 2010 books

I’ve been keeping track of the books I read each year for a while now. In 2011, I started picking out a few favorites as well. I can’t go back and add my favorites from previous years, but I can look back from now and pick out the books that still stand out to me, years later. This is necessarily colored by the passage of time, but that’s all part of the fun. I’ve decided to start with the most recent year and go backwards to the beginning. Here’s my retroactive favorites from 2010.

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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt

For a while, I was on a positive psychology kick, and read probably half a dozen books about happiness research. This was probably my favorite. Haidt surveys ancient philosophies and religions and considers their wisdom in light of modern psychology research.

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American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns. The Suppressed History of our Nation’s Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper that Tried to Report It, Richard N. Rosenfeld

I have never read a history book like American Aurora before. It is composed almost entirely of period newspaper editorials, strung together with in character first person observations by the editor of the newspaper. Does that make it historical fiction? It’s strange to read, but it works. The book centers around the debate between the Democratic-Republicans (heirs to the Anti-Federalists) and the ruling Federalists as the Federalist government comes close to war with Revolutionary France. An important lesson I learned from this book is that American politics has been more partisan than it is now (and not just during the Civil War). Rival militias marched, newspaper offices were torched, people were assaulted.

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Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell, the villian of A Man For All Seasons, and makes him into a rich, three dimensional character who will do anything to make sure his (rather feckless) master Henry VIII gets what he wants – while, meanwhile, promoting his own Protestant agenda.

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The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep, William C. Dement

This is a strange book. Written by one of the scientists who started the field of sleep medicine and did a lot of pioneering research into sleep and sleep disorders, it’s half fascinating insight into sleep research (for example, he tells the the story of how he was gearing up for a big study on melatonin as a prescription sleep medicine…and then the FDA categorized it as a supplement, kicking off the largest uncontrolled sleep study in history) and half an old man’s reminisces. Nevertheless, I have recommended it to others several times over the years. It also has what Dement says is a fool-proof cure for jet lag, which is hard to carry out because doctors are reluctant to prescribe sleeping pills.

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No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, Norman Davies

Americans get the “good war” version of World War II, where heroic democracies fight back against overwhelming odds against evil fascists. Davies, a historian of Poland, sets out to correct that interpretation. In his telling, the war in Europe was primarily a contest between two totalitarian states, with the Western allies relegated to ineffectual aerial bombardment. He presents a strong case – in terms of men and materiel, the Eastern front was the axis of the conflict. This version of history is not one that we in the West get much of, and it colors the outcome of the war significantly.